Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Religious dialogue

In a fascinating book edited by N. Vaporis [Orthodox Christians and Muslims, (Brookline: Holy Cross, 1986)] the papers from a 1985 symposium held in the USA are presented. The twelve main papers, on various historical and theological topics, are all interesting. I expect to blog on one or two in weeks to come...

The foreword from Archbishop Iakonos makes a plea for ‘common understanding as to the role religion can play in a terribly turbulent society’ in which ‘men and women everywhere are looking for peace, security and humanitarian coexistence’ (p.2). He suggests that (presumably) in the 1970s and 80s at least ‘Christians are seeking unity, while Muslims are witnessing a worldwide resurgence’ (p.1) and this means there is a great need for each to approach the other. All very nice and well put, and as it’s only a brief welcome message it seems a shame to be picky, but there is a fundamental asymmetry in the relationship that needs to be flagged up. Both officially and unofficially, any attempt by a Christian to ‘convert’ (however construed) a Muslim, or any perceived criticism of Muhammed (etc) is a pretext for hostility – not merely intellectual but also physical. Let alone what happens to Muslims who do choose to leave Islam. When the very structure of the faith is set up to suppress discussion at particular points and to employ coercion to the point of death against those who demur, then ‘dialogue’ and ‘common understanding’ are severely hampered.

We should also note that the blasphemy and apostasy laws of Islam, whether or not the state happens to endorse them in various territories, cut the aggrieved moral high ground out from under those Muslims who wish to complain about proselytism, or who wish to demonstrate or assert openness to dialogue now or in some mythical glorious Islamic past. If the threat of death or ostracism against any who wish to identify with a different religion remains in the formal and popular teaching of Islam, we can dispense with the high horses and be honest about what the situation is. The nations of the earth rage against the LORD and his annointed one. Sometimes they pretend not to, but they do. This is not really a complaint about persecution, horrible and damaging though that is (and after all, many countries and systems now and in the past have persecuted Muslims), but a plea for honesty about the full-orbed nature of religio-political communities. For as long as peaceful Christian (or other) evangelism among Muslims is considered an affront and worthy of harsh response the potential gains for dialogue will come at the cost of half-truths, turning blind eyes and certain types of intelletual dishonesty – and the benefits will largely be felt by the academic and politial elites anyway.

Another day I’ll make the same complaint about the supposed ‘tolerance’ of secular pluralism